Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Montgomery County’s plan for local park buildings grabs neighbors’ attention

Five parks in B-CC, Kensington and Garrett Park are on the county’s watch list for potential closure

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Capital View-Homewood Local Park was the site of a spirited basketball game Sunday afternoon in Kensington. The park’s recreation building is on a county list of park buildings with low usage at risk of being closed.
Samantha Locke had a birthday party in a boxy, brown building during the eighth grade. Her family and a friend’s family rented the spot, at Bethesda’s Lynnbrook Local Park, for the occasion. There was a disc jockey and a game of Truth or Dare.

‘‘Everyone got their first kiss,” said Locke, 17, a rising senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Now her high school field hockey team uses the building’s overhang as a shelter when players suit up for summer practice. They hope the county will keep the structure alive.

County officials say the Lynnbrook building is underused and is at risk of being closed.

It is one of five in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Kensington and Garrett Park that the county is watching — buildings that are used less than 30 percent of the time they are available. The county could demolish or transfer ownership of the buildings if a three-year advertising campaign fails to boost usage.

Some neighbors are banding together to monitor the progress of the county’s plan. Others say that publicizing the facilities may attract enough customers to the recreation buildings to save them.

The other facilities on watch are located at Capitol View-Homewood Local Park, Ken-Gar Palisades Local Park, Maplewood-Alta Vista Local Park and North Chevy Chase Local Park.

At Lynnbrook on Saturday afternoon, a handful of children frolicked around the park’s playground while their mothers watched or took in a book. The recreation building was empty, dark and locked.

Aisha Dahr, one of the mothers sitting just steps away from the Lynnbrook building, was surprised to learn that the facility could be rented for parties and private events. She suspected that many of her neighbors were also unaware. A proper marketing campaign could change that, she said.

‘‘I think people would use it, especially around here, because [the neighborhood] is so family-oriented,” Dahr said.

Some of Dahr’s neighbors in the East Bethesda Citizens Association have launched a committee to keep track of the county’s plans for the building.

‘‘It is surrounded by our neighborhood. It’s the center. So we have a really big interest in what goes on in the park,” said Kevin Kraus, chairman of the committee. ‘‘It’s not the building itself that is of interest to the community. It’s the whole space.”

Kraus said the association uses the building less than 10 times a year, but that group members want to have a say in the building’s future. The park committee has generated the interest of half a dozen residents in its first two weeks.

The Maplewood-Alta Vista Local Park in Bethesda has a poor attendance record as well.

‘‘There’s a good reason for that. It’s not air conditioned,” said Allen Myers, Maplewood Citizens Association president. Myers was skeptical that an advertising campaign could boost the building’s use unless the publicity was coupled with air conditioning.

‘‘It could be a nice meeting place, but you just could not use it in the summer,” Myers said. ‘‘Anybody who steps foot in there in the summer without air conditioning is going to say, ‘Never again.’”

The county’s plans for buildings being monitored do not include capital improvements like additional air conditioning. Instead, the county will only do routine and safety repairs to the facilities while they are being marketed.

The marketing strategy proposed by county parks staff includes online and print advertising distributed on the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission Web site and through libraries and community groups.

There are 18 facilities across the county in the ‘‘evaluate and market” category that are on watch but have the go-ahead to stay open for three years.

Others did not fare as well; five facilities were listed in a ‘‘transfer or demolish” category by parks staff. Those buildings are recommended to be torn down or transferred to a different county agency, like Montgomery County Public Schools in the case of Garrett Park Estates.

The marketing plan for underused buildings could introduce perks, like discounts for frequent renters.

The county’s plan could save two facilities in Kensington and Garrett Park — the ones at Capitol View-Homewood and Ken-Gar Palisades parks — without neighbors having to rally, as long as the campaign hits appropriate targets, said one neighbor.

‘‘As long as the marketing goes beyond the community, not just people who are right nearby and can walk there,” it could ignite interest, said Donna Savage, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Kensington Communities. ‘‘I can’t imagine there aren’t enough groups around. Everywhere you turn, there are groups looking for [meeting] space.”